Sunday, January 24, 2016

Swear Like a Viking – A (Very) Short History of Early Medieval Swearing

by Kelly Evans

We all swear sometimes, it can’t be helped. It’s a gut reaction to an unexpected event, whether hitting your thumb with a hammer or watching Ned Stark’s demise on Game of Thrones. Research suggests that swearing helps with pain and is actually a sign of intelligence. (Study done by Psychologists Kristin Jay and Timothy Jay of Marist College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts).

But where did swearing actually come from? And did those living in the early medieval period swear as much as we do?

Our historical sources for the early middle ages were, in the main, written by monks, the least likely group you’ll hear utter profanities. The belief that oaths caused actual physical harm to the ascended body of Christ existed,  and no monk worth his salt would dare risk his mortal soul by adding an oath or two to his manuscript.

But swearing is as natural as, well, bodily functions. Ahh, those bodily functions, used for all manner of insulting comparison today. Surely the Anglo Saxons would have used the same, erm, material for their insults? The answer is, probably not. There was much less privacy in the middle ages, as Melissa Mohr, in her book Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing explains: “The sexual and excremental words were not charged, basically because people in the Middle Ages had much less privacy than we do… so they had a much less advanced sense of shame.”

(Speaking of sh*t, the word did exist in Anglo-Saxon times but was not used as a profanity. Same goes with the word fart, in case you wondered).

Enter the Vikings. Now here are a rough and ready group of men with large swords and even larger beards. Surely they must have sworn? Of course they did.

One of the most offensive things you could call a Viking was a rassragr. Those who’ve watched the QI episode that mentioned this word know that Steven Fry, the host, refused to share the meaning while on air. The shortest meaning is a man who is demonstrably sodomized. Implying this about a man was so horrendous that the insulted man could kill the insulter without punishment or retribution.

Calling a man a "mare," or a "woman," or worse, argr (its polite meaning is "cowardly"; its sexual meaning is "emasculated, unmanned, womanish") could also call down the weight of fullrettirsorð, (the full weight of the law). In the Lokasenna ("The Insolence of Loki"), the term argr is bandied about openly.

In my novel The Northern Queen my Vikings use a number of Norse swear words, rassragr among them. Some are obvious (can you guess what bikkja means? Or hundr?) but others are not. A few examples make little sense without a bit of background knowledge. Hrafnasueltir, for example, means raven starver. Seemingly inoffensive until you remember how important ravens are to Norse mythology; anyone who starved ravens would be considered a coward and a fool.

So if you’re having a bad day but rude language is banned in your office, try a few Norse curses. Use lombungr for the morons or idiots in your life. And keep bacraut in your pocket for when someone is really bothering you. It means asshole.


  1. The things I learn on this site!! LOL
    Will keep a couple of the words in mind. Thanks Kelly, it is a most interesting and informative post.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! And yes, I've muttered a few of these under my breath at work.

  2. Well, yes, starving ravens would have meant you weren't having much luck in battle, I assume, and that would certainly have upset your average Viking, eh? ;-) Think of the description of the man who "glutted ravens on the fortress wall although he was not Arthur."

    1. Ravens were important, they show up all over, not surprising they're used in swearing.

  3. This article seemed like it would be interesting but said too little and didn't go anywhere. . It needed more information to make it a satisfying and worthwhile read.

  4. I agree "raven-starver" means a coward, but I think that is because it implies someone who avoids battles, and therefore never risks becoming food for the ravens. I can't really see why it would mean "fool."


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